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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Master, by Colm Toíbín

Started 2/2, finished 2/14.

A colleague saw that I was reading this and told me I was much better off reading a book about Henry James than reading Henry James. I wouldn't know. I picked up the book not having any idea it was about Henry James, and since I had "announced" that it would be the next book, I figured I'd go ahead and finish it. I'm glad I did. The Master represented such a change of pace from what I've been reading... well, it was refreshing.

It's a shame the weather was so warm while I read it. This seems like exactly the kind of book you want to read curled up in front of the fire, with some big dog sleeping at your feet. Toíbín doesn't just write about the late 19th century, he doesn't just describe it: he gives it what an architect would call a "rendering". It's three-dimensional, sharply colored, and given a perspective that I've rarely seen in writings from the period. Now, I'm no expert on the period, far from it in fact. But this book makes me think it would be a worthwhile era to explore.

The book is a series of eleven set pieces, segmented as chapters, covering a four-year period in the author's life. In each chapter, we are given a glimpse into James late in his 50s, his perspective on life, and his daily activities. As he moves about, writing his novels or traveling, his memory is sparked. He begins to dwell on one relationship from years before, spinning a flashback and infusing it with rare authenticity. They mostly revolve around dead friends and relatives, one even revolved around a city, but these characters become the most interesting in the novel, overshadowed only by the author himself. Hijinks most certainly do not ensue.

In these chapters, we are given an insight into the mind of an artist both as a young man and as an old man remarking on himself as a young man. It's the kind of perspective I would expect could only be written by a man who has been through it all. I've wondered if this started out as an experiment, where Toíbín became fascinated by James, then decided to pen an essay, then decided to make a project out of it. I would suspect it's the kind of project you never think will be published, let alone be successful, and I'm curious as to how exactly he brought it about. It's not quite biography, it's not quite memoir. You could say it's a biography of the mind of an artist.

In any event, the prose is lovingly written. It's evident that Toíbín spent considerable time and energy on striking the right tone, and in this he manages to be even and consistent. It's quite admirable. It's made me think about getting on Project Gutenberg and reading some of James' works. Who knows? Maybe he'll get an entry somewhere on the 25.

Book #7 will be the delightful Captain Alatriste, by Artur Pérez-Reverte

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